Órfhlaith Foyle

Short Story: ‘La Heburterne’ by Órfhlaith Foyle

Reading Time: 13 minutes




Cold floor.


My blue dress.

Dedo on the bed. Dedo dying.

His skin is so hot then it is cold. His lips are grey.

He is insisting that he might live. I hold his head.

No one has come. My bones are light and loose.

Get up. So I get up. Dress. So I dress.

I tighten Dedo’s scarf about his neck. I don’t want him to talk but he talks.

‘Has anyone come?’

‘Not yet.’


On the first day I went down to Ortiz’s apartment again. I knocked and called his name. I thought, surprise me please Ortiz, or even Hanka. Open the door and stand there with your nose wrinkled. Yawn and say, What is it, Jeanne? I stood for long minutes thinking how I would answer. I would say, I am really quite alive, can’t you see and Dedo is insisting that he also will remain alive.

We are eating sardines and the rats are drunk on marc.

We need food. We have used all the coal and it is freezing now.

‘They are away,’ a man said from another door.

I went back to Dedo. Ortiz would arrive soon, I lied then I went to the window and leaned outwards. The tree was black and naked. The air was wet. A dog was pissing in the street. Dedo began to sing but he made no sense.

Dedo likes to put his hand on my belly. It makes me into a Madonna, he says. It makes me like his mother whom I have never met but I have read her letters. She is the only one you love, I told him and he laughed. Lunia said, of course he only loves his mother. All men do. You just have to be a good enough copy then you can survive as his wife.

A rat skits by my toes then sticks its head into a sardine tin.

When Lunia was last here, she smoked a cigarette and said how much she admired me.

Dedo glanced over at me.  You see? his eyes said.

Lunia is Polish, dark and rich with lips and skin. Dedo has painted her clothed but I see how easy she might dismount from her dress, and coo ‘Modi’, and her skin would brighten hard on his easel, yellow hard and her teeth would show through her red lips.

I begin to draw. I draw a line. Then another.

My first lover was Foujita. We kissed. He said I had no qualms about a man’s naked skin. He admired how I drew the body. The dip from above the shin to the dip above the ankle, the angle of hips, the nudes in the Académie Colarossi bent and stretched, and I could draw their lines, I could almost feel the moist plush of their skin if young, or their dry and withered limbs if old. The stove smoked, cigarettes smoked, sweat filled the air and sometimes my breath did not want to come out because what would have to come in to take its place.

After Foujita, there was Modigliani. There was the Carnival of 1917.

There was Chana Orloff and she introduced us.

He lifted my hair, bowed and his red scarf smelled of wine.

‘I will draw you.’

Chana warned me. ‘He sleeps with them all.’


I have drawn a stiletto. It protrudes from my heart. I cross it out and begin again. I draw the studio. I begin with the place where I sometimes stand so Dedo can paint me. I try to draw the sounds into my lines as well as the light. I try not to draw like Modi. A friend once said she could not tell our work apart and I shrugged and said what of it? Yet part of me rose up into my throat. I paint more than he does. I paint landscapes. I have painted Soutine as he could be if he was not as Dedo sees him. And Dedo can no longer sculpt. I have spooned Aphrodite’s stomach and buttocks in clay.


‘I will draw you,’ he said.

After that he slept with me.

I had to sew up my underclothes.

I was nineteen. He was thirty-four.

He took drugs and he drank.

He painted women while he drank.

He painted nudes and I left my parents’ house.

My brother André remonstrated in a letter to me posted from the Front.

My mother haunted the hotels Dedo and I slept in,

and my father could not believe that I had thrown myself to a Jew.


Dedo refuses a cup of warm water.


‘You could go back to Italy, Dedo.’

‘Like this? Like a nothing?’

I hand him a bottle of wine and he drinks until he has the strength to stand.

‘I will go to the Rotonde. I will find Soutine.’

He moves forward then halts, sways and falls to his knees. We crawl back into our bed. I kiss the sores on his face and press his lips with my finger. He has only a few teeth and his gums are soft, dark pink and rotting.

He says, ‘You are everywhere I look.’


Get up. So I get up.

Pick up an empty sardine tin, and I do.

I put it on the window ledge.

There is wet, fat snow outside.

The dog is shivering.

Leave, Jeanne. Leave now.

The rats watch as I walk around the studio and Dedo mumbles in his sleep. I visit the lavatory and I feel my baby lie low near from where I pee. I close my eyes and imagine myself in the Rotonde, myself and not Dedo, myself and anyone else, myself drawing what I see, the smoke and the drink, the plates of eggs, the small dark coffee cups, the wine glasses, then the faces. So how to put a face where it belongs on my sketch paper, the lines and hollows, paunches and the plain bald skin of the body, tiny moustaches, battered teeth and broken eyes?

Dedo groans from the other room. I wipe myself then stand and the room lists sideways. My joints hurt. My mouth fills with warm water from my belly.

When I had returned from Nice and told him of the new baby still as tiny as a fish in my womb he stared at me from inside his long stare.

‘We do not have luck.’


The night outside is black.

The rats are constant…

A Jew, my father said. A Jew?

Dedo laughed in his face, Yes, I am a Jew. And your granddaughter is half a Jew. We are everywhere, Monsieur Hébuterne.


The light from the landlord’s window is dark yellow like the skin of Lunia Czechowska’s neck in Dedo’s paintings. My first baby cried so much. There were days when I tried to live with the crying but there was something in me, a dark rotting anger that spread from my heart and into my eyes.

The Zborowski’s said I was ruining the great Modigliani and now I was pregnant again. What could Modigliani do with another mouth to feed?


And Lunia took my first baby to live with her in the Zborowskis’s apartment.

She said it was to give me peace.

Peace was emptiness. I held my Aphrodite’s stomach and buttocks in the palm of my hands, and I saw how Dedo’s cigarette smoke had turned my sculpture grey. I mixed colours and I painted. I painted him. I painted the tree outside. I painted death as she lay in my bed. If I went outside, I saw people talking about me.

Imagine giving away her baby. And him- his opium and wine, do you not hear him tumbling up and down the stairs. Did I not hear that he grabbed her once by her long hair and sought to kill her in the Luxembourg Gardens?


I am drawing a stiletto.

I drink some marc wine, open a sardine can and spoon out some fish with my index finger. After a while I throw up into the lavatory then I sit against the wall and I listen to Dedo sing about Italy and his mother. How she loves him, her darling Amedeo, how he will return with money from the London Exhibition, and me, his gentle wife with blue eyes, and our little Jeanne Modigliani, fat from a nurse’s milk.

Lunia was sold for 1,000 francs in London.

The Zborowski’s liked me again.

They were certain that Dedo would be rich.

My ankles twist a little as I walk up and down the studio. I cannot sleep. My bones are unsteady. I smell of sardines and wine. Dedo stinks of sweat, and piss and the sores on his face glisten like rounds of yellow gold with dark and weeping ruby centres.

Leave Jeanne. Leave.

So I leave.

I walk down the staircase, out into the courtyard. The dog slinks to my heels, looks at my face then whimpers away. The cold air holds fast all the smells that I can smell. The gutters are thickened with a little frost. A woman walks by without any glance at me but she is holding a bag of potatoes and I am surprised that I am no longer hungry. I am full to my very edges with fish. My teeth hurt. My throat is sick.

I wander to the Rotonde. It has people inside so I enter the warm, sweaty air and guide my belly in front of me as I look for a seat. Kisling glances up at the air but not at me. Valadon rubs her eyes. Picasso and Cocteau are seated in a corner. I go up to them and say,

‘Dedo is dying.’

They gaze at me.

‘Dedo is dying,’ I tell them.

They pour some wine and drink, talk of nothing so I turn away. A man approaches with flowers for his lover. A woman retrieves an olive from her breast. The long spread of table legs, the scrape of shoes, a shout, a kiss, a scream of either love or hate and the air fattens with sound and smells and I crave paper and a pencil to sit and sketch as Dedo once did.

He drew portraits for wine. He kissed my lips and I tasted that wine. He was clean and beautiful. We danced and he held my hair in his fists and ran his teeth upwards to my scalp. It was joy then. He loved my quietness so I kept my quietness. His friends remarked my secretive eyes, so I kept myself behind my eyes. My father accused me of being next to a whore and my mother said, you think this is love, all this running between hotels, all this life in cafés with the demi-monde, those people who drink from the gutters and reek of each other’s bodies?

Their priest reminded me of the Holy Spirit.

I replied that Dedo had the Holy Spirit in his blood.

When the war was over, my brother André disowned me.

When the war is over, Dedo promised. I will bring you to my mother.

He will destroy you first, Chana Orloff said.  All those models he sleeps with, all their paintings, don’t you tire of seeing their faces much like the faces from those African sculptures that he covets. He longs to mix his fingers into stone. Modi wants to be Renoir.

And there is Simone, the one before you Jeanne.


Tubercular Simone loved Tubercular Modigliani.

She had blue eyes and blonde hair.

She was Canadian and lived in Paris.

She spent her money on Modigliani.

Tubercular Simone became enceinte,

Tubercular Modigliani l’a laissée.


You smile now, Chana said, yet he will destroy you.



Cold floor.


I pick up my stiletto.



Cold mouth.

Dedo sits up and taps his chest.

‘My lungs,’ he says.

His breath crackles and cries.

He calls for ‘Mario’.

I sit behind him to prop his arm as he puts touches to his painting of Mario Varvogli. The rats nuzzle the empty sardine tins, and Dedo hums a little as he examines the black of Mario’s hat and tie. He coughs hard and shoves the edge of our sheet into his mouth to prevent any blood on the painting. His ribs billow in and out, the shiny pustules of his face seep yellow and I clasp his shoulders to hold him straight.

The silence is cold and waits for me to speak.

‘Remember how you painted Diego Rivera?’ I say, ‘with his fat face and his lazy, half-looking eyes?’

Dedo nods.

‘It was him as he really was, not how you wanted to see him.’

I say that terrible truth then I say more.

‘In Haut-de-Cagnes you painted landscapes. We ate olives and good fish, and you licked the oil from your fingers and placed them into the paint, and it was as if you lifted the sun into the canvas. It made my bones warm to see you disappear into those paintings, but then you found another woman.’


An Italian too, Mother said, grubbing out on the side of a hill. How many children has she, ten or twelve, and how she has spread out, squat like a human pig, sinful despite all their Holy Roman history and their signs of the cross. I see him. Scrambling his way to her so they can lie like pigs in muck and straw. She will have a belly made by him soon enough.

And he isn’t even a Picasso!


I painted the bright sun-bleached ground of the hillside and Dedo, a speck of dark, his scarf dashed red from his neck climbing to the Jacobelli’s farmhouse. I painted the sea. I searched for the correct blue, not like my eyes, but deeper yet with sunlight reaching down into the cold and reflecting upwards. It is a dangerous blue. A blue to disappear into and not return, and as I sat before my painting, I thought how easy it would be to be free again, to discover something else to love instead of a man or a god.

Dedo screamed at me to disappear with him. He hated this southern light, this sea and the smell of the earth. He wanted Paris again.


Remember Paris Jeanne?

Remember the oily twilight,

the lamps outside the Rotonde,

soup in Rosalie’s, the café light,

wine and the long windows of

our studio in rue Grand Chaumiere.

Remember the tree you painted?

How its branches twisted

like arthritic fingers…

Love me because you dare.


Remember the poverty, Jeanne.

He sleeps with his models, Jeanne.

Remember God.

Remember your father, your brother.

Remember you must hide your sin.

Remember being a girl.

Remember being you.

Remember the bed you slept in.

Innocent. Innocent. Innocent.

Until taken by a Jew.


The landlord’s wife yells outside for her son and I go to the window. Although she does not see me I put my hand outwards, and I notice that the rain goes through my skin and lies inside my flesh. I am drunk on marc, starving for vegetables. I am seeing the moon as it slips sideways. I want a tomato in my mouth, an aubergine with fresh mint and cheese. Dedo is dying.

‘Don’t leave me,’ Dedo says.

He watches me from the bed. He wants me to hold him but he smells. My stomach heaves and I have to visit the lavatory. Nothing comes up yet my stomach pushes against my throat. My breath stops. My heart fills my ears and I am being strangled from the inside. I pound my fists into my neck. My eyesight darkens.

DAMN YOU, I shout inside my throat.



DAMN YOU to him.

DAMN YOU to me.

Live without virtue, he had advised me and we spun dancing in the dark Paris streets. We made love in beds perfumed by pots of urine hidden in small cupboards. My father railed the priests against me. My mother told me I was soiled.

My breath pushes hard in my neck.



My breath comes through. Everything is silent, even the rats, yet slowly there is the sound of the water in the lavatory and my vision clears while my body turns hot then cold. There is a window above the lavatory and it sits in its deep brick setting, light pink with swathes of yellow through the paint that continue beyond the sill and outwards onto the lavatory wall.

A small voice speaks from the window.

‘You are just a little painter.’

‘I am an artist,’ I say.

The voice laughs. It sounds like Zborowski and I stare at the window, trying to make out his face but there is nothing there.

‘I painted Soutine,’ I say. Smelly Soutine, a man who knows no manners and I put him against a wall, a beautiful wall full of colour and I painted him as someone who knows who he is deep inside. Stealthy Soutine, Streetwise Soutine, my brother, Dedo called him.

There, I told Dedo. See, that is him. We painted him side by side, but see what I have found out?

Soutine preferred Dedo’s painting. It was he, right to the tips of his hair.

Yours is good, Jeanne, but it is not true.


Someone is knocking on the door, calling Dedo’s name. I run to open it and there is nothing except an empty landing and staircase. I decide to visit the de Zárates’ but there is no answer. The walls follow me as I climb back up to the studio, and Dedo is conversing with the rats in Italian. I drink some wine and smoke a cigarette. Dedo is convinced that he has recovered even though the blood that comes out from his mouth is thick and smells of iron.

He puts back his shoulders and his hair. ‘I should be in Midi by now.’

‘With Lunia,’ I say.

‘She is good for me, Jeanne.’

‘Those are the Zborowksis’s words in your mouth.’

‘I need to get well, Jeanne.’

‘She wants you, Dedo.’

‘She is good for my art.’

‘I am good for your art.’

‘You are a mother. You are my fiancée. You are sacred. You are everywhere I look.’

He reaches for a brush. I pick up my stiletto and we play like this, he with his brush and me with my stiletto. He paints the air and I jab at my fingers until pricks of blood appear.


Remember your poetry, Jeanne?

Remember how you read

in bed?

Sometimes nursery rhymes,

sometimes not?

Sometimes Apollinaire,

Sometimes rot?

Remember Zborowski, Dedo?

He prefers the dying to sell.

Ortiz de Zárate told me so,

He waits for your death knell,

Your wonderful dealer Zbo.

I was timid, sweet and gentle,

You twisted my hair and loved

my eyes, my flair oriental,

I would save you, they all said.

And now we are al-most dead.


Dedo coughs blood and laughs. He clasps our hands and promises that we will be bound in eternity. He sleeps and I undo our hands. I think of many things. I think of love and of finding Dedo, as if I had found God, and my heart had peeled open under his smile. Now the rats nudge the sardine tins on our bed. Open another, Jeanne. Feed us, Jeanne.

I sleep. I sleep and…

Ortiz de Zárate comes to us on the seventh day. He cries down to the landlord to bring soup but Dedo vomits blood and Ortiz has to call for the ambulance.

‘I have only a little bit of brain left, Ortiz.’

Kisling sends a telegram.


‘It is all up with Modigliani.’

And women watch over me

in a hotel room paid by Zborokowski.


I am allowed to see him the next day and my father accompanies me. Dedo is laid out quiet and dead. I kiss his face then I walk backwards from his body and Kisling opens the door. Father takes me home and puts me in my old room. Mother gives me milk. André sits with me until he falls asleep.  The night comes into our courtyard and I decide to disappear into its black colour. I walk backwards through the open window. I hold my belly and the air rushes cold under my arms. I walk back into the dark, like the Greeks walk, seeing the last of everything. I walk back until there is nothing and later a workman finds what is left of me, puts me into his cart and takes me to the front door. My brother André tells him to take the body to rue de la Grande Chaumiere. His mother must not see that dad and broken thing in the cart.

‘Who is she?’ the cart man asks the landlord after they lay me on my bed.

‘La Hebúterne,’ the landlord answers.

They leave me there.

Sardine tins.


My blue dress.


Cold night.

My blue dress.

Get up. So I get up.

Dress. So I dress.

It will be morning soon. We have sardines and marc.

And later I will buy aubergines and cheese.

Later. Yes later.

The rats are happy.

My bones are light and loose.


Órfhlaith Foyle was born to Irish parents in Nigeria, Africa and has lived in Kenya, Malawi and Australia, and now Ireland. The Lilliput Press published her first novel Belios. Her first full poetry collection Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma was published by Arlen House, and then short-listed for the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award in 2011. Arlen House also published Somewhere in Minnesota, her debut short fiction collection in 2011; the title story of which was first published in Faber and Faber’s New Irish Short Stories (2011), edited by Joseph O’Connor. Her work has been published in The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, and The Manchester Review and in the Wales Arts Review. Órfhlaith’s second short story collection titled Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin, (Arlen House) published September 2014 was chosen by Joseph O’Connor as a book of the year for the Irish Times. She is working on her next novel. Website: orfhlaithfoylewriter.wordpress.com &Twitter @ OrfhlaithFoyle

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